Talking to Your Pediatrician About Behavior Problems

Mother talking to child's pediatrician
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Annual checkups are usually filled with conversation about a child’s physical health. Some pediatricians extend the conversation to include questions about mood and behavior. But not all doctors ask those questions.

Talking to Your Child's Doctor

Just because a doctor doesn’t ask about your child’s behavior, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t mention it. In fact, doctors offer a wealth of information about mental health and behavioral issues.

They can also provide referrals to appropriate community resources if your child could benefit from an evaluation with a developmental specialist, a mental health professional, or other service providers. If you have concerns about your child's behavior, it's important to tell the pediatrician about your concerns.

A 2015 report published by the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health found that many parents aren’t bringing up emotional and behavioral issues with the pediatrician.

Here are a few highlights from the survey based on responses from 1,300 parents of children ages to 5 to 17:

  • 51% of parents would tell the doctor if their child’s temper tantrums were worse than other same age children.
  • 50% of parents would tell the doctor if their child seemed more worried or anxious than usual.
  • 37% of parents would tell the doctor if their child was having trouble getting organized to do homework.
  • 61% of parents would tell the doctor if their child seemed extremely sad for over a month

Here are the reasons parents gave for not discussing emotional and behavioral issues with a doctor:

  • 45% of parents said they did not think behavior problems were medical issues, so they didn’t see any point in raising issues to the doctor.
  • 29% said they prefer to handle behavioral or mood issues privately.
  • 29% of parents would prefer to consult with someone other than a doctor about their concerns.
  • 6% of parents said there wasn’t enough time to discuss their concerns during doctor visits
  • 8% felt the doctor wouldn’t know what to do

Why Parents Should Talk to the Doctor

In any given year, up to 20% of all children experience a disorder that impacts their behavior, learning, or mental health. It's important to discuss any issues you see with your child's doctor as soon as possible.

Explaining your concerns and asking questions about your child’s development can give a doctor insight into potential risks and warning signs of behavioral or physical problems.

Doctors need to know what you witness outside of the doctor’s office. A relatively quick exam isn’t likely to reveal problems, like ADHD or depression.

If your child has an underlying issue, like potential ADHD or anxiety, a doctor can make referrals for appropriate services. A child may benefit from anything from occupational therapy to psychological testing. Further evaluation and assessment may be necessary to rule out problems or to establish a clear treatment plan.

How Doctors Address Behavioral Issues

Sometimes there’s a clear link between physical health issues and behavioral issues. For example, a child who throws temper tantrums at bedtime may be having difficulty sleeping. Similarly, a child who experiences frequent stomachaches may actually be experiencing anxiety.

If a pediatrician thinks a child has a mental health problem or behavior disorder, a referral to other treatment providers is often made. Depending on your child’s specific needs, a referral could be made to anyone from an occupational therapist to a psychologist.

A doctor may eventually prescribe medication for ADHD, but may only be willing to do so after talking to a child’s therapist. Or a doctor may want to refer a child for psychological testing before making recommendations about a child’s mood disorder. Pediatricians should be part of a comprehensive treatment team that addresses emotional health or behavior disorders.

How to Bring Up Behavioral Issues With the Doctor

Whether you're concerned that your child still bites his fingernails or your discipline strategies aren't curbing your child's aggression, schedule an appointment with the pediatrician. Explain that you have some concerns about whether your child's behavior is normal.

Although you might be tempted to take a "wait and see" kind of approach, early intervention can be key to addressing behavioral issues. The sooner you talk to the pediatrician, the sooner you can take action.

Of course, there's a chance that you won't need to take any action. Your child's pediatrician may explain that her behavior doesn't require any type of intervention. If that's the case, it will at least put your mind at ease while also putting your concerns on the pediatrician's radar so you can talk about it again at a future appointment.

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